A little more than six years ago, Jemima Kirke gamely agreed to take part in the pilot episode for a new television show that her best friend from high school was writing, directing and starring in. Not only was Kirke, then 24, determinedly a painter, not an actress (though she had already appeared, for free, in said friend’s first and award-winning indie feature film, Tiny Furniture), but she had also given birth to her first child, her daughter Rafaella, just six weeks before.
The friend, of course, was Lena Dunham, and the television show, Girls, has gone on to become the definitive portrait of post-recession life for a certain section of the millennial generation. The process turned the self-confessed ‘reluctant actress’ Kirke, along with her co-stars Dunham, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams and Adam Driver, from unknown newcomers into bona fide global stars.
And now, the darkly comedic Girls is coming to an end; the sixth and final season airs on Sky Atlantic beginning next week.
‘I am not at all sentimental, and on the last day of filming, I was like: “Oh God, do I have to hug everyone?”’ Kirke rolls her blue eyes and affects an expression of bored contempt. ‘But after my very last scene I went back to my dressing room and I was like: “Oh s***, I think I’m going to cry.”’ She whipped out her phone and posted her teary selfie on Facebook as proof. ‘Because it actually did mean something to me that it was over — my life has changed so much because of it.’
There has been change for the good: London-born, New York-based Kirke, now 31, can no longer nonchalantly eschew the title of actress, with two feature films due out later this year. But there has, too, been change that has proven more painful. Last month, Kirke separated from her husband of seven years, Michael Mosberg, 40, the father of her two children: Rafaella, now six, and their son, Memphis, four. ‘I got divorced, and I attribute that to acting,’ she says, with characteristic candour. ‘And just asking myslef, “Is this really me?”
‘So much of my life has been about reaction, just following the flow rather than making a strong choice,’ she explains. ‘In acting you are always asking yourself why you do things, why you make the choices you make. Everything means something. And so then you start looking at your own life in that way. I’ve learnt a lot more about myself and started to figure out what I really want.
‘It wasn’t tumultuous and it wasn’t a big, dramatic split-up; it was a slow one, as they are sometimes, but it’s sad.’
We’re settled in a quiet corner of the NoMad Hotel, a genteel spot in Manhattan’s old Garment District, having coffee at a table beside the fireplace. Kirke, now dressed down in jeans and a stripy sweater, make-up free, has spent most of the day in front of the camera for our shoot at a nearby studio, wandering about between shots in sometimes just a pair of knickers.
‘Like Lena, I think I was always quite comfortable being nude,’ she nods. ‘That doesn’t mean I wasn’t without my insecurities. When I was younger, I would pretend to be really confident when I wasn’t necessarily, but then, I think, real confidence did follow from that.’
It has certainly served her well in Girls, which has become renowned for its unvarnished displays of sexuality and nudity, this swansong season being no exception. ‘I’ve never been so nude anywhere, I don’t think,’ Kirke says of one particular upcoming scene involving her character, the acerbic, strong-willed Jessa, eating yoghurt from the tub, naked on the sofa before strolling around the room slapping her own arse. ‘I was naked for hours and hours and hours.’ She has said in the past that she has ‘felt obligated — as an artist, as a mother to a daughter — to show [her] body’. ‘I just don’t want her to see the sex scenes any time soon, that’s all,’ she says. ‘But I hope that she is going to understand that I have a job to do, as an artist, in whatever medium I am working in, not to exclude things for the sake of modesty — that’s not the mum that she has.’
Though she has hacked off her formerly waist-length blonde hair into a chic, grown-up, shoulder-length bob, Kirke still emanates bohemian glamour. Her arms and hands are covered with a web of tattoos, many self-drawn — including a sun covering her entire right palm and an enormous tiger on the inside of her left forearm. The daughter of Simon Kirke, the former drummer of the rock bands Bad Company and Free, and Lorraine, an interior designer who also owned Geminola, a celebrated vintage boutique in New York, she is also the grand-daughter of the late British billionaire ‘Black Jack’ Dellal (so named for his love of gambling), the banker turned property dealer who made his fortune controversially flipping properties, including London’s Bush House, in the 1980s. The model Alice, shoe designer Charlotte and art-gallery owner Alex Dellal are her cousins. ‘Alice is one of my oldest friends, not just my cousin — I speak to her every few days on Facetime,’ says Kirke. Her parents swapped Barnes for Manhattan when she was 11. Her older sister, Domino, was 13, her younger sister, Lola, six. Her brother, Gregory, then 16, remained at boarding school in the UK. Initially, Kirke — who still speaks with a British accent — found it hard to settle in New York. ‘There were huge cultural differences after coming from a posh English school [The Harrodian School in Barnes] to the Red School House off MacDougal Street, where cool artists would send their kids,’ she recalls.
As a teenager, she rebelled, having what she has said were ‘a bunch of profound and negative drug experiences’. At high school — the liberal St Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights, — she met Dunham, going on to win a place to study fine art at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. ‘But I went to college thinking that I could do whatever the f*** I wanted,’ she has said. ‘And I got thrown out. Twice. I was an entitled little privileged brat.’
She first went to rehab at 19 for ‘everything’. She’d been partying hard, taking drugs including cocaine and drinking heavily for several years. The final straw was ‘a three-day bender’, at the end of which, she has said, she felt like she ‘wanted to kill myself’.
Kirke has strong views on the concept of ‘addiction’: ‘When you are in rehab, and afterwards, you think you are an addict. I didn’t actually feel like the label fit, but I went through with it because I gave it credit for giving me a life and I was scared that if I abandoned it, I would go back to right where I was.’ She believes there is a tendency to label people too young. ‘They’re not fully formed yet, so diagnosing them is premature. I think there is such a thing as a circumstantial problem, and I think that’s what I had — and I think you can change.’
Kirke has been drinking again the past three years — carefully. ‘At first, I would try to leave a little bit, so it didn’t look like I needed the whole drink. Or I would just have the one when I really would have liked two, because you feel that people are taking an inventory,’ she says. ‘You are very conscious of the checklist. Am I drinking every day? Am I drinking at every social event?’
It was during her second spell in rehab, aged 23, that she met Mosberg, a lawyer who, still drug-free and strictly sober himself, has recently set up his own rehab centre in Brooklyn. A year later, already pregnant with Rafaella, they got married. ‘I just wanted to keep it f***ing simple: yes, I choose you, let’s do this. We’ll live together and we’ll raise the baby as a family. You just want to do whatever is best for the child.’
At just 24, she also became stepmother to Mosberg’s two older children from a previous relationship, his son and daughter, who are now aged 12 and nine. ‘Getting pregnant does influence your choice, and that’s why I think a lot of couples end up getting divorced later, because the kids are fine, they’re in school, they’ve got their life set up and then you finally ask: am I happy?’
Mosberg now lives 15 blocks from the Brooklyn brownstone they formally shared. ‘I’m going to miss being a unit,’ admits Kirke. ‘That’s something that I think is taught to us societally, that a family is a mum and a dad, or two dads or two mums or whatever, but it stays together and it’s one house. And you do get really sad when you fail at that.’ She’s channelling that sadness. ‘I’ve been making lots of paintings about marriage,’ she says. ‘I’ve started a painting of Allison [Williams, her co-star in Girls] in her wedding dress.’
While she is bidding farewell to the troubled, wayward Jessa, Kirke’s first, paid lead film role doesn’t sound a million miles away. In Untogether, written and directed by the author and journalist Emma Forrest, she plays Andrea, a recovering heroin addict and former writing prodigy with long-term creative block and a habit of self-harming. The film, which has yet to receive a release date, also stars Kirke’s own sister Lola playing Andrea’s sister, along with Ben Mendelsohn, and Jamie Dornan as the object of Andrea’s obsessive lust. The Little Hours, which was just screened at the Sundance Film Festival, is a change of pace though, a comedy set in a 14th-century convent with Dave Franco, Aubrey Plaza and Molly Shannon.
And though her film career may be burgeoning, Kirke still steadfastly refuses to play the fame game. She recently panned the Oscar favourite La La Land on Twitter, sparking a stream of backlash and abuse. ‘It is important, I think, that people allow themselves to have opinions and to not be so f***ing likeable. Everyone is so precious and so safe with the things they say; everyone’s so scared of being slammed and judged. I’m just not.’
She already has some experience of the trolls. While at art school, she had an abortion without anaesthetic because she could not afford the extra expense, and told her story two years ago in a video for the Centre for Reproductive Rights. ‘People were calling me a baby killer, asking if my kids know that I murdered their sibling,’ she says. ‘But it doesn’t offend me. You could never make me feel bad about my abortion — you just can’t.’
One of Donald Trump’s oft-stated intentions is to deny funding to Planned Parenthood, the US health organisation that provides contraception and abortion services, and where Kirke turned for confidential, (relatively) affordable help. ‘I just hope by the time my daughter is sexually active that it’s up and running again, which will be, let’s say at worst, eight years.’ She counts on her fingers. ‘Eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13… she’s not going to be having sex at 14, so no, I think we’ll be all right.
‘My daughter knows that Trump’s evil,’ she continues, grinning impishly. ‘I put little notes in her lunch box every morning and cover them in stickers, but one morning I just couldn’t think of anything to say, so I just wrote, “Trump sucks”. And when she got home, I said: “I’m really sorry that he’s our President, but you’re a big strong girl and I’m your mum and we’re going to do all we can to help, aren’t we?”’
At the moment, her priority is teaching her children kindness. ‘It’s a tough lesson for young children to learn.’ A stranger screamed at Kirke in the street the other day when she crossed the road with her children as the lights were changing. ‘My daughter asked: “Why do people not like you?”’ she smiles. ‘I said: “I don’t think so many people don’t like me, but I really don’t mind if some people don’t — not everyone’s going to like me, and that’s absolutely fine.”’
‘Girls’ series 6 premieres on 13 February at 10pm on Sky Atlantic & NOW TV